It is this madness to explain. . . .
—John Ashbery, The Skaters (I)
The thermometer reads 5 degrees; goldfinches hang from the feeder, juncos peck at seeds on the ground. I wonder at their ability to stay warm in this weather. I know there’s a scientific explanation, but I don’t need one: it’s enough to witness it.
Recently, I sat and listened to Jeremy Irons read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I listened twice, the second time with a copy of the poems in my hand. Notwithstanding Irons’s too-plummy voice, I was content simply to listen to the rhythms, the sounds of the words, and absorb, as best I could, their sense.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
—Burnt Norton (I)
“Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves” reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s line, “clear water in a brilliant bowl” (The Poems of Our Climate (I)). Leave it to Eliot, I thought, to take something as elegant as a bowl of rose-leaves and let it gather dust. But of course it would, in “real life”—and, anyway, in “real life,” as Stevens wrote, “one desires so much more” than that “brilliant bowl.”
Truth be told, I’m not so fond of Eliot, the man. He was such a gloomy Gus and an odd sort in some pretty unappealing ways. I’ve not read so very much of his poetry as the title of this blog might suggest, and I certainly haven’t made a study of it. But I do recognize the brilliance of the best of it.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
—The Dry Salvages (V)
While skating around the Four Quartets, I learned that Eliot, in writing them, looked to Beethoven’s late string quartets for form. I also learned that this issue has been thoroughly parsed, cross-referenced, and debated. In “The Orchestration of Meaning in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Thomas Rees reported:
Many critics and students have come dangerously close to subscribing to the tenuous proposition that a nearly exact formal analogy exists between the structure of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and that of Beethoven’s late string quartets. [Rees 63]
Rees went on to make a number of comparisons between the formal structure of the poems and Beethoven’s string quartets, among other musical works, and concluded,
. . . by syncretically fusing several important musical and literary influences, in the composition of his poem, he was able to produce something that seems to go beyond poetry—that is, a species of writing which expands the dimensions of poetry by exploiting non-poetic devices. [Rees 69]
The phrase, “beyond poetry” is taken from Eliot, who said he wanted to write a “poetry that would be beyond poetry.” [Rees 63] I can’t help but think that Rees fashioned his conclusion to fit Eliot’s conceptual box. I’m skeptical about it all, and I guess the key thing is, for me, that analyses like this take me further away from, rather than closer to, a poem.
Who, actually, is going to be fooled one instant by these phony explanations,
Think them important? So back we go to the old, imprecise feelings, the
Common knowledge, the importance of duly suffering and the occasional glimpses
Of some balmy felicity. The world of Schubert’s lieder.
—Ashbery, The Skaters (I).
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy discovering something of how a poem or a musical work is composed. It’s this compulsion to pick things apart (“we murder to dissect”), most often with relentlessly linear logic: it seems antithetical to the way a great poem—or a great piece of music—moves.
I’m sympathetic with Eliot’s yearning for a poetry beyond poetry, though. I don’t know the context in which he said it, but I’m somehow reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s On My Birthday—20
In my mind I imagine words thus shot of their meaning,
Hordes of them running amuck all day,
As if in the sky there were nonsense nursery syllables booming—
Horselum, bridelum, ridelum, into the fray.
Well, what Eliot intended probably wasn’t quite so fanciful, but in East Coker (V), he did write this:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
In that last line, particularly, there’s a lesson for us all. I just wish Eliot could have lightened up a bit.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
—Wordsworth, The Tables Turned
Listening List: More Than Four Quartets
For a playlist on Spotify that includes all the string quartets listed below, click here.
Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131 (1826)
“Free from any considerations a commission might have imposed, in the String Quartet in C-sharp minor Beethoven moved further away from the conventions of quartet-writing than he had ever done before. An external sign of this is the layout in seven movements, played without a break-certainly a major departure from the norms that leaves the listener totally unable to predict the course the work will take at the next turn. But form in Beethoven is always inseparable from content, and the revolutionary structure of this quartet was made necessary by the exceptional emotional range of what Beethoven had to say.” To read more, click here.
Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 1, 1st Movement (Lento) (1909)
“’. . . each player is considered as an individual, with his own strand of the fabric; this autonomy brings about a textural richness comparable to the last quartets of Beethoven….’
“Thus, in the first movement, Bartók pays homage to the fugal opening of Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, even going so far as to develop separate notions, as Beethoven does, from the fugue’s four parts. Extreme rhythmic tension, and the most free tonality, hallmarks of Bartók’s later quartets, are also procedural elements here . . .”. To read more, click here.
Benjamin Britten String Quartet No. 2, 1st Movement (Allegro Calmo) (1945)
“The quartet is in three movements, and it is original from its first instant. Rather than adopting a standard sonata form, which opposes and contrasts material, Britten builds the opening Allegro calmo, senza rigore on three themes, all of which are announced in the first few measures and all of which are similar: all three themes begin with the upward leap of a tenth.” To read more, click here.
Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet No. 6, First Movement (1956)
“The quartet begins, characteristically, in a pure diatonic innocence – the two violins play radiantly in thirds – that soon develops signs of strain and becomes increasingly fraught. Unusually for Shostakovich, the second subject is correctly in the dominant; it is another simple tune, whose phrases are set off by cadences. Pulsation from the first violin covers the move into the development, which begins with the second violin and viola reintroducing the main theme, tonally estranged.” To read more, click here.
Jefferson Friedman String Quartet No. 3, Introduction (2005)
Friedman’s entire string quartet may be found here.
“The No. 3 Quartet’s brief movements (first and third) enclose a longer central movement entitled ‘Act’. Both the first and third movements open with long, insistent, crescendo phrases. But while the first movement is “in your face” with aggressive ostinatos, the third movement is quiet, eventually settling on a major triad. . . .
“Is Friedman’s C major resolution in this [Act] movement of the No. 3 quartet a ‘mistake’? . . . . I, for one, do not think it is ‘easy’ or a ‘mistake’ any more than I think the major-key resolutions in much baroque music were ‘easy’ or ‘mistakes’.” To read more, click here.
John Adams String Quartet, First Movement, Part 1
First Movement, Part 2, may be found here.
The String Quartet, wrote David Nice, “had all the urgency and at times anguish of Janáček’s two quartets as well as the unpredictability of Beethoven’s later labyrinths. . . . yes, another masterpiece.” To read more, click here.
Bonus Quartet: To listen to and read about Lembit Beecher’s String Quartet, These Memories May Be True, performed by the Aizuri Quartet, click here.
Credits: The quotations may be found at the links included in the post. The images may be found here, here, and here.
There’s certainly a musicality and musical structure to ‘Four Quartets’, though, like you, I’d be uneasy at putting Eliot’s poetic sequence into a Beethoven-only box. It’s far too allusive and open-ended for that. Poems like this resonate all over the shop and resist one interpretative straitjacket.
Eliot’s concept of a ‘poetry beyond poetry’ is relevant to ‘The Four Quartets’ more than any other of his poems, I think. Not only is the non-verbal, musical link strong, but the poem is saturated in mysticism, and also Buddhism, both of which stress the importance of some kind of transcendent experience (mystical union, nirvana or whatever) beyond words and beyond the intellect — even beyond poetry itself; although, paradoxically, poetry can be the vehicle which facilitates transport to that place ‘at the still point of the turning world’ (which Rumi, for one, supremely demonstrated), rather like the true meaning of a Zen koan lies not in the words of the koan themselves, but in the direction to which they point and the satori they may induce.
SW: You’ve expressed beautifully in “paradoxically, poetry can be the vehicle which facilitates transport to that place ‘at the still point of the turning world'” one of the things for which I couldn’t find the words (as well as many things for which I didn’t have the thoughts!). In a way, I don’t think there is any “beyond poetry,” but rather that anything can be encompassed within it. I am reminded of something John Metcalf, the Welsh composer, once said of poetry: “it’s almost as though the meanings are all between the words somewhere.” In fact, everything he said in the excerpt of my 2010 conversation with him is pertinent and insightful to our conversation here, I think (the excerpt is the third video down in this post:http://rainingacorns.blogspot.com/2010/10/conversation-with-composer-john-metcalf_23.html).
And, of course, in music, or at least music that doesn’t use words, the meaning is communicated in a different way altogether. So, I think what I would say is that neither poetry nor music can be put into a box in the way some analyses seem to do. (One amusing side note to the “music box” commentary, actually, is analysis that tries to squeeze the Four Quartets into sonata form, based on Beethoven’s late quartets, while Beethoven, meanwhile, had by this time completely escaped the traditional boundaries of the form, as you can see just from the quotation from commentary on Opus 131.)
Back to John Metcalf and poetry–I seem to recall you are very near the Welsh border, so you must be hearing a good bit about the Dylan Thomas centenary. Metcalf has a new opera as part of the centenary, Under Milkwood, that will be premiering April 3 in Swansea, and after a few performances there, will tour Wales. Here’s a link, if of interest: http://dylanthomas100.org/english/events/under-milk-wood-an-opera/.
It’s been a real long time since I’ve read them, But I’ve always liked the ‘Four Quartets’ (btw, do you know why they are called “quartets” when they have five parts?), have always found the language pleasing and musical – will have to try and listen to Irons’ reading tomorrow before they take it down. But it seems to me in this instance your playlist outshines the poetry. These are all extraordinary string quartets. And thanks for sharing the Guston image. I haven’t seen that one before.
P.S. I’m just starting to dip into the poetry of Wordsworth. If you have an Ereader, this is an outstanding edition (beautifully formatted) for only $2: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009BEGQ0O/ref=oh_d__o00_details_o00__i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Mark: I have bought the Wordsworth–thank you so much for pointing it out. To your question, I am too much a novice to do more than speculate, but what I speculate is that Eliot took the late Beethoven quartets, and music beyond that, as a source of inspiration, rather than prescription, and then found the structure that suited his own expression best.
That you write to say the playlist outshines the poetry is quite a statement, though I suppose you may mean by that my response to the poetry, which I’ll admit isn’t terribly deep this time around. Something really irked me about the commentary I was finding, particularly, and that shows, I know. (Though I will say Ashbery comes up with the absolute best line for any occasion–the passage ending with the reference to Schubert’s lieder is, to my mind, beyond price.)
As for the string quartets, I couldn’t be more delighted that you appreciate those I’ve chosen. I used to think that mastery of music was best demonstrated in a large canvas, a symphony or the like. But now I am not so sure, and it’s Britten’s three numbered string quartets that have put me on a different path. Within the constraint of four instruments, the two violins, a viola, and a cello, a world like no other can open up in the right hands. I’ve chosen the company Britten’s quartet keeps here as carefully as I can, though much more exploration is required: all of Beethoven, Bartok, and Shostakovich, at the least. Yet it does seem to me that Friedman, Beecher, and Adams are welcome and appropriate companions here.
No, I did not mean your response. For that matter, let me say how much I appreciate Solitary Walker’s and Elizabeth’s responses. I meant that while I really like T.S. Eliot, I don’t think his poetry is as divine as The Beethoven, Britten, Bartok and Shostakovich string quartets.
Mark: Ah, I see, I’m with you now–and with you on all other counts you note here as well.
Sue, I find a kind of loveliness in Eliot’s line about the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves, in his emphasis on not seeing a purpose in disturbing it. I join you in admitting a limited exposure to , and certainly understanding of, Eliot’s poems. What stands out to me most, in my slight glimpse of his writing, is his seeming to stay back from experience and look at the world, and how the other people in it act, with an uncertainty, a hesitation, just as he does in the source of your blog title. I imagine him gazing upon a bowl of rose-leaves, once lovely, and hesitating over the question of disturbing the dust that has settled on them: isn’t this the natural course of things, and is there a different sort of beauty to be seen there now – perhaps a beauty less visual, and more “poetic”? It is in such a questioning that I find my mind shocked into an unexpected way of looking at things, and what may be able to take me beyond the poetry.
Your next quote may be easier to connect with: “music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music” .. my emphasis would be on “While the music lasts.” What is difficult for me in music as an art form is this fact that it doesn’t last. It may last a little in our heads, but the whole of it is ephemeral. This is why it’s hard for me to understand what I’m listening to or draw comparisons. The piece I listened to before is gone, and now I hear a different one. Unlike two paintings, which I could view side by side, allowing my eyes to travel between them, two (or more!) pieces of music play themselves out and run away, leaving my poor ears hesitating. Nothing left to them, but their accumulating dust. As an appreciator, and not a player, of music, what remains is trying to hear so deeply that the music enters me, and I become it. Then I have a sense of the emotion it evokes in me, which can’t allow me to say much to anyone else, but does at least develop my own taste.
So, this is what I take from Eliot’s wish for going beyond poetry, what you have connected so well with Wordsworth’s “response,” if I may call it that. It is what brings me again and again to your posts and keeps me listening and stretching. I approach with Wordsworth’s “heart/ That watches and receives” – and admit, with Eliot, “The rest is not our business.” Sue, another thought-provoking post! — Elizabeth
Elizabeth: I am still reflecting on what you’ve written here and will for a long while, but I just wished to say right now how valuable I find these insights, particularly about listening. The conundrum you’ve given words to is one that I share.
Elizabeth: So many thoughtful and thought-provoking trails to follow here! One per sentence, I do think. I’ll pick a few: “It is in such a questioning that I find my mind shocked into an unexpected way of looking at things, and what may be able to take me beyond the poetry.” Yes, those shocks set the mind moving, don’t they? This puts in mind what John Farrell wrote here: “His interest lies in the transcendent reality beyond poetry itself, which may in part explain the line in Four Quartets, ‘The poetry doesn’t matter.’”
The whole of your second paragraph elegantly states issues I’ve not been able to pull up out of my own “raid on the inarticulate.” I’ll note this passage: “but the whole of it is ephemeral. This is why it’s hard for me to understand what I’m listening to or draw comparisons. The piece I listened to before is gone, and now I hear a different one.” I don’t have a good head when it comes to calling up music out of memory, which I find a constant frustration. Of course it isn’t always the case–repetition of a theme can help (with the Goldberg Variations, I can pretty much call up the main theme at will–I wonder if you might, too?). Or a strongly hummable-singable melody I can hold on to, at least a bit (say the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth). But a lot of the music I find most compelling, music that bears many, many satisfying re-listenings, doesn’t have those features, not, at least in the way I’m describing here. I just go inside the music and stay there, and go back and stay there again, and I’m happy to do so, each time—in much the way you so beautifully describe.
The issue of drawing comparisons resonates with me, too, both as to performance and to comparing musical works. The ability of the best reviewers, like David Nice, to assess a live performance of a piece is a continual marvel to me, though I know that capability doesn’t come from nowhere: a whole lot of listening time and concentrated study goes into that, not to mention the ability to express the assessment clearly in intelligently chosen words. (BBC Radio 3’s CD Review Building a Library segments (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03rwjv7) are also terrific for learning more about the differences among performances, not to mention learning more about the piece of music being discussed.) Comparing two different pieces I find a bit easier, even though, as you note, as music exists in time, the only way to get at it is to listen sequentially. Whether I can articulate much about the differences between the pieces is another matter. If they are starkly different, it’s a bit easier, of course (I wouldn’t mistake a piece by Helmut Lachenmann for one by Tchaikovsky, for example).
But really, the last comment you make in that paragraph is the best way of all to listen, it seems to me: “what remains is trying to hear so deeply that the music enters me, and I become it. Then I have a sense of the emotion it evokes in me, which can’t allow me to say much to anyone else, but does at least develop my own taste.” Oftentimes, once each of us has had a great experience with a piece of music, the only thing that really needs to be done is to hand it on, saying nothing more than “Listen to this!”
How nice to encounter such thoughtful appreciations of Four Quartets, poems I have long loved and with which I have become intensely familiar in the last few years. (See http://www.figures.org/fq) I enjoyed very much reading your thoughts, each of you.
Analogies between Four Quartets and music, and Beethoven’s late string quartets particularly, run the risk of straining what is really an intuitive relationship between them rather than a schematic one. As Susan said, the Beethoven was inspiration rather than prescription. Eliot himself cautioned against forcing poetry into too tight a relationship with musical structures: “I think that it might be possible for a poet to work too closely to musical analogies: the result might be an effect of artificiality.” That said, I do, as a poet and performer, find an extraordinary degree of musicality in the poems, and people often report after a performance of the poems that they found themselves shifting back and forth from verbal to musical modes of absorbing the work.
In answer to Mark’s question about the five parts in each poem, I think the five parts or sections are more like the movements of a string quartet, rather than equivalents to the number of instruments.
For me, the idea of “poetry beyond poetry” makes the most sense when the full content of Eliot’s statement is taken into account. Eliot said he was aiming at “…poetry so transparent that in reading it we are intent on what the poetry points at, and not on the poetry, this seems to me the thing to try for. To get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his last works, strove to get beyond music.” His interest lies in the transcendent reality beyond poetry itself, which may in part explain the line in Four Quartets, “The poetry doesn’t matter.”
I had never read John Ashbery’s The Skaters and was struck by the phrase “old, imprecise feelings,” which must refer to Eliot’s “raid on the inarticulate” and its “general mess of imprecision of feeling” in East Coker. It seems like a deliberate skewering of the old ways. Does anyone know if that’s what Ashbery had in mind?
As for wishing Eliot could just lighten up, Susan, I guess I’d say that Eliot probably wouldn’t have made the coziest pal, but there are passages in Four Quartets that point at the light in ways that that are radiantly beautiful. The man was onto something!
John: How pleased and honored I am that you have visited and offered your observations, making the conversation here all the richer. I appreciate having the full context of Eliot’s comment, which I was not able to find, and your observation, “His interest lies in the transcendent reality beyond poetry itself.” This reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s lines from The Idea of Order at Key West, in which (or so I choose to think), the question to “pale Ramon” is about what great poetry (and the same would apply to music) does to our vision of the world:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
I did have a similar thought to yours about Ashbery’s phrase “old, imprecise feelings.” I don’t know whether he would have been likely to have Eliot’s phrase in mind–perhaps Mark Kerstetter might have a thought on that–but there is some kinship, it seems to me, in their preoccupations, though Ashbery’s spirit, I would say, is considerably lighter, more playful. Certainly Ashbery would endorse the idea that “each venture/Is a new beginning,” as in these lines from The Skaters: “Here I am then, continuing but ever beginning/My perennial voyage . . .” (I explored The Skaters in the post previous to this one, which you may find here, if of interest: https://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/skating-above-the-ice/)
Most of all, I hope you’ll keep us posted should you come to where any of us are with your performance of the Four Quartets. I was struck by many things in looking at your site (and thank you for the link). Here is a passage from one review that I thought particularly insightful, and certainly a fine tribute to the quality of your performance:
“A poem becomes itself when it’s spoken through a body moving in space and unfolding in time. The poetry is not spoken until it’s heard. Once heard, it changes and changes us. What John Farrell does is to give Four Quartets a hearing that is itself a listening out loud to its gestures toward transcendence. With humility and respect for the language, within the awe and ache of the poetry’s desire, his hushed and incandescent voice turns listening inside out into speaking. His body, neither transparent nor self-focusing, becomes a zone of contact where we, too, hear and speak the poetry. The spare stage, muted lighting, and restrained blocking position Farrell in close and open proximity to the audience, so the poetry emerges as dialogue, both measured and urgent, with the listeners, who answer in kind. We, too, are moved to the edges of our seats, the borders of our bodies stretching, nearly touching.”
This has been an absolute delight, Sue. I would have never guessed that after work tonight, I would revisit this bookmarked page and an hour later have listened to four movements while reading Eliot. I’d never read these Quartets, but was rather taken with parts (III of East Coker – something about those descriptions – esp of being on the train and all goes silent). I’m now going to have to read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John, as it is referenced in the after notes (this is why I never get off this damn laptop – link to this link ,to that….)
My take away from this first go – his ruminations on life and death are synonymous, in my eyes, with the process of creation (of a poem). That ebb and flow of beginning and end only to repeat the cycle. To be present with our words, yet these words travel us forward and back in time. A poem, not unlike a piece of music, allows us to experience not only the sound, but the silence, of this world and the worlds not of this time being.
A lovely (slightly geeky) way to spend my Friday eve ~ a
angela: Well, certainly, a good bit of what is making it such a delight is all these wonderful comments, including yours! Despite several vows to do so, I’d never read the Four Quartets all through, though I have made several forays into it. Listening to Irons read them was the sure way in. I did find his reading a bit too plummy, but it certainly got me through them, and twice. They’re certainly worth it–and I know what you mean about the link to this, link to that–I noted that Dark Night of the Soul as a path to follow, and did meander down several other paths a bit. Now, as for your reading, I love it: meta-poetic, would it be perchance? “That ebb and flow of beginning and end only to repeat the cycle. To be present with our words, yet these words travel us forward and back in time.” Nice!
Angela: On the Dark Night front, Solitary has come up with a nice link (he did a post on the subject last year). See his comment below.
You may be interested in this: http://solitary-walker.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/st-john-of-cross-and-st-teresa-of-avila.html
SW: Nice! Hopped right over to your link and read with interest. Best quote for me goes to St Teresa must say (which I realize is a different book): There is a time for penance and a time for partridge. ST TERESA OF ÁVILA. Thanks for the link!
SW: Don’t know if you’ll get back here to see this, but, in the event, a poetry friend, Sanjeev, alerted our ModPo group to a blog post he wrote some years back on the relationship of the Four Quartets to the Gita that I thought you might enjoy. Here’s a link: http://tastymorselsoflife.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/eliots-four-quartets-life-and-gita.html.
Blogged hopped over SW and read your post ~ it made me visit one of my book stashes to figure which St Teresa book I own (it seems I cannot make up my mind for I have one on Therese of Lisieux and Progress of a Soul for Avila) both bios. sigh – how I love the mystics. Thank you for sharing your link ~ a
It’s all an endless trail, isn’t it, once you start in?
To all: In addition to all the great comments that have been contributed here, a lively discussion of the Four Quartets has been taking place among ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) classmates in the ModPo Facebook group, all thanks to Elizabeth, I might add! In the discussion, we learned that Sanjeev, who is a member of that discussion, counts the Four Quartets among his favorite poems and wrote about it some years back on the blog he maintained at the time. Sanjeev has kindly given permission for me to share the link to that post here: http://tastymorselsoflife.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/eliots-four-quartets-life-and-gita.html. The post, among other things, contributes a number of insights into the relationship of the Four Quartets to the Gita and other Hindu philosophy. Thank, you Sanjeev! (By the way, ModPo 2014, which will start this fall, is open for enrollment here: https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry. Once enrolled, if of interest, you will, among other things, receive a link to join the ModPo Facebook group where you can participate in any discussion that is going on there throughout the year.)
I’ve not time to read right now, Sue, but thank you for sharing. I was a bit amazed while reading to read a theme from the Gita (cannot remember which quartet).
Well, the word ‘syncretic’ would turn me off such a close linking right away. As always, trying to build a system out of a series of apercus, many of which may well be right, seems doomed to fail. But it can grandly fail too: what was Freud but a brilliant joiner of the psychiatry in previous literary masterpieces, with quite a few strong hunches of his own? And he was a superbly clear writer too. But to build of that an edifice where the windows don’t fit is worrying. Anyway, at least there isn’t the pointless analogy between music and architecture, which gives us nothing but the outer shell of musical form.
I like what you say about taking and relishing the best in Eliot – that applies to everything else here.
David: Your leap to Freud is absolutely inspired. I do love your picking up on that terrible husk of a word “syncretic.” It’s sort of a signal, isn’t it, that the analysis has gone into the further reaches of dried up academe? If Freud hadn’t had those hunches, in addition to being a “brilliant joiner,” would we know of him today? I suspect not. And this is perfect, absolutely perfect: “. . . at least there isn’t the pointless analogy between music and architecture, which gives us nothing but the outer shell of musical form.” That’s the thing, isn’t it? This penchant for making sure we can push things into tidy little boxes, what’s it about? I have been spending the last few days with Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, today starting in to listen with the score. Of course, I bring to score-reading only a novice’s enthusiasm, but, even given my rudimentary abilities here, I am exclaiming over every page. There is simply so much here! The reason I associate this with what you’ve written and what prompted me to write this post may not be so terribly clear, but I think the thing is, there’s no need to try and fit poetry into the music box, music into the architecture box, or anything else of the sort. Just revel in the art form for what it is and what it gives you. That’s the thing.
I’m glad you had a positive response – I wrote that awfully late having come back from Oslo, and thought it might be drivel. But the stream of semiconsciousness seems to have been OK. I’m trying to break up ‘tidy little boxes’ at the moment with a history of western music from Haydn to now in five shortish classes. Makes me realise more than ever that there was plenty of romantic in classical, lots of Bach in the romantic, and so on. The great minds stop nowhere and don’t think necessarily about being modern. And I’m loving Beethoven much more at the moment, especially after the only truly inspiring Eroica in concert I’ve heard (Sakari Oramo’s).
Hoping that your work on Shostakovich 8 means the other half of your wonderful exploration is due soon.
David: Yes, I am working on another Shos post. Fascinating to undertake, but harder and harder to put into words, so it’s going to come along slowly for this half. But soon for the 8th, I think.
As to your own response: Not drivel, though I realize part of why I enjoyed it was the way you leapt from one association to another. Very Ashberian!
Last not least, what you describe about the classes you’re teaching now demonstrates exactly why I enjoy reading what you write about music–again and again, you’ve pointed this out–recently, for example, noting the use of serialism by Britten and Shostakovich to create a disturbed effect (you said this better, do please forgive). You do indeed break up those tidy boxes. As you say,”The great minds stop nowhere and don’t think necessarily about being modern.” I would love to know what’s on your survey curriculum–I don’t suppose we can hold out hope that you’re recording the classes?
My gosh, I may have something to add, after all. The reason for the five sections within each of the poems has to do with Eliot’s own work. When he wrote the first of the “Four Quartets”, “Burnt Norton”, he intentionally patterned the poem after the five-part structure of “The Wasteland”, and then continued the structure through the rest of the poems.
As for his attitude toward poetry, it seems to me impossible to separate his understanding of words from his understanding of The Word. His faith was in many ways idiosyncratic, but it was real, and its part of what I find enlivening in his latter work. Look at this passage, for example. Substitute “poetry” for “prayer”, and it seems to me the central truth doesn’t change one whit.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where [poetry] has been valid. And [poetry] is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the [poetic] mind, or the sound of the [poet speaking].
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
shoreacres: This is terrific. I had read that the form for the Four Quartets was patterned on The Waste Land. The Four Quartets is certainly a set of poems that one can go back to continually and come up with a rich passage each time–as you do here, and have on so many other occasions. I appreciated particularly the seeming open-endedness of these lines:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion.
And of course your insight substituting poetry for prayer adds another interesting dimension to the whole of the passage you quote. And speaking of this stanza from Little Gidding, I don’t know what exactly to make of these lines, but there’s something about his insertion of England as one of the two reference points that I find striking–perhaps it’s the insertion of something so concrete (at least in the first instance) as a specific country in language that is otherwise abstract:
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
My hunch is that the concreteness is precisely the point. Farther down, we get this:
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
The interplay of Eastern and Western modes of thought appears and reappears throughout the Quartet. Some seek redemption outside of time and history, whether through reincarnation, a fusion with the universal – whatever. For Eliot, redemption occurs within history, and time itself is included in the act of redemption. Or so it seems to me.
shoreacres: A great example of what may be going on here, and this observation is fascinating: “For Eliot, redemption occurs within history, and time itself is included in the act of redemption.” Interesting turn to the concrete in the last lines:
. . . while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
I get the sense of time stopping: we are redeemed from history and all it has wrought. I have no idea if it has any relationship to what Eliot intended–it’s just my untutored response!